Rev. Dr. Michael Beck: Fresh Expressions

May 31, 2023
Rev. Dr. Michael Beck / Photos by David Haines

By: Christa Meland

“What I’ve come to share with you is a movement of new Christian communities that are primarily lay-led,” Rev. Dr. Michael Beck told hundreds gathered at the Minnesota Annual Conference Session in St. Cloud on May 31. “People who have no connection with the church are finding life in these communities in the normal spaces and rhythms where they do life.”

Beck is co-pastor of Wildwood and St. Marks UMCs in Florida, and a network of fresh expressions led by laity that gather in various community venues and public spaces. He’s also director of re-missioning for Fresh Expressions US.

Why fresh expressions? “We have experienced a change in ecosystems,” Beck explained. “We have to figure out a new way of being.” For the majority of people who report no religious affiliation, it’s not because of a disinterest in spirituality and faith; it’s due to a disconnect with existing forms of engagement. The hallmarks of engaging young people, he noted, are curiosity, wholeness, connection, and flexibility.
Starting a fresh expression begins with creating a community of belonging marked by forming relationships around shared interests and hobbies, and by sharing stories.

“What are the already life-affirming things that the Spirit is up to in those domains of life?” asked Beck. “How do we go out, form relationships with people as they do them, and see how new Christian communities may spring up right out of those relationships and activities? It’s less about us trying to make things happen or force things to happen or get God to bless something that we have started and is asking a different question…What is God doing in people’s lives and how do we join into what God is doing?”

Dinner church whereby people gather to share a meal is an easy starting point for a fresh expression, Beck said. So are recreational places, coffee shops, dog parks, running tracks, skating rings, and bowling alleys.
“Church can happen in all those places,” he noted. “They are connected by these practices that bind people together in common humanity.”

After we immerse ourselves in a particular setting and build community, then come creative ways of sharing Jesus that are contextually relevant to the community forming.
“Just listen and just love and serve and build relationships, and see what God does with that,” Beck advised. “Sometimes a church will emerge, sometimes it won’t. We fail a lot and then we build upon that and we try new experiments.”

Beck told the story of a 70-year-old cradle Methodist named Larry, who had chaired every committee you could imagine. He started a fresh expression with friends at a dog park. His first sermon started with the question: If God was a dog, what kind of dog would God be? It led to fantastic conversation.

Another fresh expression that Beck is involved with takes place in a tattoo parlor; attendees share a Jesus story, get a tattoo (if they so choose), and then have a “tattoo talk” where they tell the story behind one of their tattoos. A fresh expression called “Doritos and Bibles” takes place at a southwest grill; those present enjoy all-you-can-eat chips and salsa and burritos and worship Jesus. Then there’s a Monday night virtual reality fresh expression where attendees put on their headsets and gather in a digital space. There’s also a yoga fresh expression, one at a rehab facility, and even a “Tesla church” where people meet at charging stations.
All of these gatherings are led by teams of dedicated lay people—whom Beck called “the everyday heroes in the church.”
Beck asked those gathered in-person and online: What is the Holy Spirit stirring in you? Where do people hang out in your community? What would you do even if nobody showed up? Do that, and start building a fresh expression from there.

Beck, who will be working with the Minnesota Conference to guide us in starting fresh expressions over the next year, reminded attendees that this work takes time but is incredibly rewarding.

“The organic nature of those relationships—that it is slow, that is worth it, and it bears the fruit that lasts,” he said.

Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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